Have people been asking Ira Glass, host of WBEZ's This American Life, to make sense of the recent election for them?
"Thank God, no," he said by phone the other day. "I feel like I have no special insight at all."
But if insight is to be found anywhere, it is likely to emerge from This American Life's meticulous synthesizing of American voices. For 21 years, Glass and his team have gathered stories from across the country, and he brings a special one-man show to Benaroya Hall on Sunday, January 29. Armed with an iPad and a media library, he'll mix a multimedia presentation on the fly with stories that "people in our audience have never seen or heard of."
And, he added, "of course I'll be talking about the election."
Who better to explore this divided country than a radio show that's plumbed those divisions? Recent episodes of TAL have featured a dispatch from a town where residents demanded that Muslim citizens be kept out, Neil Patrick Harris singing of Speaker Paul Ryan's discontent, and a man who attempted to live as a badger (they can't all be political).
Glass has covered elections before, but this one felt different.
"This election, we were seeing things we have not seen before in our lifetimes," he said. "Including, I think most interestingly, the way in which I think facts mean less than they ever have."
The 2016 campaign was also marked by an intense balkanization in the sources of information that Americans trust.
"The right-wing media reaches people on the right, and the mainstream media reaches everybody else," Glass said. "And as somebody in mainstream media, I would be very interested to figure out a way to get to an audience that's listening on the right... but I don't know if that's possible."
Nevertheless, he's trying. "We're very aggressively thinking about how to document what's happening well, and in ways that other people aren't," he said. "I think anybody in journalism is doing that—it's just that our mandate is a little different than most people. So we can paint with a broader canvas."
In other words, This American Life, the show, isn't changing—at least, not any more than this American life, our reality, is changing.
"I don't think the role of our show is going to change very much under any different president," Glass went on. "We're a show where we do narrative journalism of stories with scenes and characters, some of it about things in the news and some of it not... I don't think that's going to change. The thing that's exciting to think about is collaborating with people we haven't collaborated with before, trying new things, looking at new areas to document."
Throughout the election season, the show has formed connections with people on the right. "Now that a right-wing government has taken over the country, that's a good opportunity to work with really wonderful smart people on the right," he said. "That's not that different from what we normally do. We collaborate with journalists from all over."
If there are any big changes coming, they're likely to be technological in nature. The show's first spin-off podcast, Serial, has been an incredible success, with a download rate that would be the envy of any large television network. More podcasts are on the way, Glass said, hastily adding, "that have nothing to do with the election."
They're also shooting a movie in January with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Robert Redford, based on a TAL story about a preacher who threw his congregation into theological chaos when he declared that hell does not exist.
This follows a brief run of an Emmy Award–winning TAL television series and an overall boom in narrative audio storytelling, whether on the radio, via podcast, or at live events.
"The feeling we're looking for from the very best TV shows that we binge-watch, you can get that from audio-only," Glass said. "You can get that from a podcast. To have a story that you get caught up in the characters, and the situation, and you want to find out what's going to happen, and you can't wait for the next one to come out—I think podcasting can do that."
Now, as always, our best hope for understanding each other is simply to listen.
"We're still the same country we were November 7," Glass said, and his tone suddenly changed from somber to a laugh. "This is still a completely amazing place."